Kamma and Saṅkhāra, Cetanā and Sañcetanā

Cetanā expresses the “intention” via a set of cetasika. Saṅkhāra leads to action with that intention. Kamma is the deed done with that intention. 

December 14, 2021; revised November 24, 2022; rewritten April 2, 2023

Download/Print:8. Kamma and Saṅkhāra


1. Most people use the word “kamma” to indicate “bad deeds” or even “results of past bad deeds” (which are really “kamma vipāka.”)  When something terrible happens, they say, “Oh, this is my kamma.”

  • But kamma is a generic word that means “action.” That could mean moving the body, speaking, or thinking (kāya, vaci, and mano kamma.) Kamma can be of mainly three types:
    (i) Neutral kamma: like using a knife to cut vegetables or asking directions from someone.
    (ii)  Akusala (or pāpa/apuñña) kamma: e.g., stabbing someone with a knife or telling a lie to make money.
    (iii) Puñña kamma: e.g., using a knife to cut loose a trapped animal or explaining Dhamma to others. A kusala kamma is a puñña kamma done with the comprehension of the Four Noble Truths, i.e., by a Noble Person. Of course, all puñña kamma become kusala kamma only for an Arahant.
  • All three types are done with a specific intention. We must engage in various kinds of kamma of the first type in our daily lives to get things done. The “intention” in the second type is evil or immoral, while that in the third type is good or moral.

2. The first type of kamma yields results at that time only; they do not lead to “kammic consequences” in the future. Those actions do not have morally good or bad intentions.

  • The second/third type can bring “bad/good results” at that time or in the future. Moral or immoral “intentions” that arise lead to the creation of an unseen “kammic energy” that remains in “viññāṇa dhātu” and can bring vipāka in the future. See below.
  • That “intention” is not in the cetanā cetasika (mental factor), per se, but is incorporated via a set of other “moral/immoral” cetasika, as explained below.
  • Cetanā cetasika only incorporates appropriate cetasikas into a citta; cetanā” means to “assemble a citta (with appropriate) cetasika.”
  • With intention, one generates three types of saṅkhāra to “take action.” Kamma is the deed done with saṅkhāra. Kāya, vaci, and mano saṅkhāra lead to kāya, vaci, and mano kamma. A kamma becomes immoral or moral with the incorporation of immoral or moral (sobhana/asobhana) cetasika, as explained below.
Cētanā Is In Every Citta!

3. “Nibbedhika Sutta (AN 6.63)” is a vital sutta that explains many keywords in Buddha Dhamma. Toward the end, it defines kamma: Cetanā, I tell you, is kamma. With intention, one does kamma through body, speech, and mind.” See Ref. 1.

  • Now, cetanā is a “universal cetasika,” meaning it is in every citta. This is a CRITICAL observation. We don’t do good or bad kamma at all times. Thus, kamma means any bodily activity, speech, or even thoughts. For example, we saw that even breathing happens with cittās.
  • Therefore, even any action, like lifting an arm, is a kamma. One may also speak and think about getting some task done that would NOT have morally good or bad intentions. Those would NOT belong to akusala, pāpa, puñña, or kusala kamma. They are just kamma. Such “neutral kamma” would not have sobhana (moral) or asobhana (immoral) cetasika. However, cetanā cetasika is still there since it is a universal cetasika.

4.  There are seven such “universal cetasika” in every citta: Phassa (contact with an (ārammaṇa);   vēdanā (feeling);  saññā (perception);  cētanā (putting together all relevant mental factors); Ekaggata (One-pointedness);  jivitindriya (life faculty); manasikāra (memory.) See Ref. 2.

  • Mano saṅkhāra are defined as “vedanā and saññā;” see “Saṅkhāra – Should Not be Translated as a Single Word.” Since vedanā and saññā are universal cetasika, mano saṅkhāra arise in every citta. Thus, a “neutral kamma” is done with only mano saṅkhāra.
  • A new citta vithi arises when a new ārammaṇa comes in. That contact with the new ārammaṇa is phassa. The mind “feels” that (vedanā) and recognizes it (saññā) with the help of the manasikara cetasika that can recall similar past events. Ekaggata helps keep the mind focused on that ārammaṇa. See “Citta and Cetasika – How Viññāṇa (Consciousness) Arises.”
  • That complex process occurs within a billionth of a second (lifetime of a citta.) See “Amazingly Fast Time Evolution of a Thought (Citta).” It is critical to read that post to understand this primary process.
  • When cetanā starts incorporating “defiled intentions,” it becomes sañcetanā, and saṅkhāra becomes abhisaṅkhāra.
Cētanā Becomes Sañcetanā

5. The word “sañcetanā” comes from “saṅ” + “cetanā.” Thus, it means cetanā cetasika has incorporated “saṅ” that can contribute to generating kammic energy for future rebirths. I have discussed the importance of “saṅ” in many posts. See “San – A Critical Pāli Root.”

  • Therefore, saṅkhāra are associated with cetanā, and abhisaṅkhāra (those that contribute to the rebirth process) involve sañcetanā
  • The intention becomes “defiled” when certain types of cetasika arise. For example, an “angry state of mind” is expressed by incorporating dosa and moha cetasika into the citta. When becoming greedy, lobha, moha, and even jealousy (issā) cetasika may arise in citta
  • When cetanā incorporates types of cetasika responsible for future vipāka, it becomes sañcetanā. Then saṅkhāra become abhisaṅkhāra.

6. Only abhisaṅkhāra with sañcetanā are responsible for the rebirth process or saṃsāra

  • The word “saṃsāra” comes from “saṅ” + “sāra” where “sāra” means “good” or “beneficial.” Thus, one is trapped in the rebirth process because of the wrong view that “living in this world is beneficial.”
  • This is why the types of saṅkhāra that arise due to the ignorance of the Four Noble Truths (i.e., “avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā”) are kāya saṅkhāra, vacī saṅkhāra, and citta (mano) saṅkhāra that involve kāya sañcetanā, vaci sañcetanā, and mano (or citta) sañcetanā.
  • Paṭiccasamuppāda Vibhaṅga” states: “Kāyasañcetanā kāya saṅkhāro, vacīsañcetanā vacī saṅkhāro, manosañcetanā citta saṅkhāro. Ime vuccanti “avijjā paccayā saṅkhārā”. Therefore, saṅkhāra in Uppatti Paṭicca Samuppāda always involve abhisaṅkhāra with sañcetanā.
  • However, only kāya abhisaṅkhāra and vacī abhisaṅkhāra directly lead to the rebirth process. Mano (or citta) sañcetanā do not become abhisaṅkhāra. That is a subtle point we will address in the future.
  • A Buddha or an Arahant would not generate abhisaṅkhāra or sañcetanā, but they do generate saṅkhāra with cetanā until Parinibbāna. Their actions, speech, or thoughts would have kammically-neutral kāya, vaci, and mano saṅkhāra associated with them.
“Intention” Comes from Cetasikas Added Based on the Ārammaṇa and One’s Gati

7. If the ārammaṇa is mind-pleasing, lobha (greed) can arise in the mind. When the lobha cetasika is incorporated into the citta, it becomes a “lobha citta.” On the other hand, seeing an enemy would generate dosa (anger), and the corresponding citta would be angry because cetanā would incorporate the dosa cetasika into it. Thus, cetanā is like a supervisor/administrator who adds other relevant cetasika (good or bad) based on the “state of mind.”

  • Returning to the types of kamma in #1 above, we can now make sense of the role of the cetanā cetasika. The “intention” comes from the types of cetasika that arise in the mind based on the ārammaṇa and one’s gati. For example, someone with “angry gati” is more likely to be angered by even a mild accusation. For an introduction to gati: “The Law of Attraction, Habits, Character (Gati), and Cravings (Āsava).”
  • The cetanā cetasika “constructs” a citta by incorporating appropriate cetasika based on one’s gati and the type of ārammaṇa. Thus, gati and the ārammaṇa will dictate the “intention.” This is a CRITICAL point to understand. 

8. If one does a task with lobha, dosa, moha, then it is an akusala (or pāpa) kamma. Another subtle way to say that is any action done with chandarāga (with a mindset that says worldly pleasures are worthwhile pursuing) has at least a trace of akusala nature.

  • A particular activity involving generosity, compassion, etc., is a puñña kamma. Here, alobha and adosa cetasika are incorporated into cittā. Cetanā here is still sañcetanā IF one has not comprehended the dangers of the rebirth process, i.e., since one still has avijjā (not comprehending the Noble Truths.)
  • That is because those “good kamma” are done with the expectation of “better rebirths/good vipāka” in the higher realms of the kāma loka (human and Deva realms.)
  • A kusala kamma is a “better version” of a puñña kamma done with an understanding of the Noble Truths/Paṭicca Samuppāda/Tilakkhana. 
  • If the same puñña kamma is done by someone who comprehends the Four Noble Truths/Paṭicca Samuppāda/Tilakkhana, it would automatically be a kusala kamma. Such kusala kammā are done WITHOUT expectations for worldly benefits, but ONLY with the expectation of attaining Nibbāna and, thus, stopping the suffering-filled rebirth process.
  • Details in “Six Root Causes – Loka Samudaya (Arising of Suffering) and Loka Nirodhaya (Nibbāna)” and Kilesa – Relationship to Akusala, Kusala, and Puñña Kamma.”
Kammic Energy Arises In the Mind

9. The three types of kamma are kāya, vaci, and mano kamma. They are done based on kāya, vaci, and mano saṅkhāra

  • When a “neutral kamma” is done with saṅkhāra (that are not abhisaṅkhāra), the kammic energy generated is only enough to get the task done. There is no “residual kammic energy” deposited in the viññāṇa dhātu that can bring vipāka in the future.
  • However, when a kamma is done with abhisaṅkhāra (with sañcetanā), part of the kammic energy generated is deposited in the viññāṇa dhātu. Those can bring vipāka in the future, including rebirths.
Kammic Energy Remains in Viññāṇa Dhātu to Bring Vipāka

10. It is difficult for those in the Western world to wrap their minds around the concepts relating to kamma. That is mainly because the focus is primarily on the material world. Ancient Greeks tried to describe the world only in terms of matter, a tradition that has continued with modern science. Modern science investigates material phenomena involving material objects located in space. With the terminology of Buddha Dhamma, that description restricts the “world” to just five “dhātus“: pathavi, āpo, tejo, vāyo, and ākāsa. All material objects are made of pathavi, āpo, tejo, and vāyo and located in ākāsa dhātu.

  • However, in Buddha Dhamma, there is a sixth dhātu, viññāṇa dhātu, and that is the most important. Viññāṇa – arising in mind (mano) – is the precursor to the material world. See “Manōpubbangamā Dhammā..
  • Kammic energies generated in defiled cittas (as well as all memories or namagotta) are “stored” in the viññāṇa dhātu. See “Where Are Memories Stored? – Viññāṇa Dhātu.”
  • It may not be easy to understand that post without understanding Paṭicca Samuppāda (PS). I plan to direct this series of posts to clarify all the terms in PS to complete that picture.

All posts in the new series: “Buddhism – In Charts


1. From “Nibbedhika Sutta (AN 6.63): “Kammaṁ, bhikkhave, veditabbaṁ …pe… kammanirodhagāminī paṭipadā veditabbāti, iti kho panetaṁ vuttaṁ. Kiñcetaṁ paṭicca vuttaṁ? Cetanāhaṁ, bhikkhave, kammaṁ vadāmi. Cetayitvā kammaṁ karoti—kāyena vācāya manasā.

2. The “Sammādiṭṭhi Sutta (MN 9)” defines nāma (mentality) as, Vedanā, saññā, cetanā, phasso, manasikāro—idaṁ vuccatāvuso, nāmaṁ.” In Abhidhamma, two more cetasika of jivitindriya and ekaggata are listed together with the above five cetasika. Thus, there are seven cetasika in every citta. The point is that “intention” is not a good translation for cetanā. One’s “intention” comes through with the types of moral (sobhana) or immoral (asobhanacetasika (such as lobha or alobha) included in the citta. The cetana cetasika “puts together appropriate cetasikās and builds the citta.” See “What is a Thought?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email